Solving The Great CFL Schedule Debate

CFL fans have argued over the parameters of the league schedule since the dawn of mankind. Ancient cave paintings of the eastern homo erectus depict the struggle of garnering CFL interest during the Stanley Cup playoffs, while the riverside scrawlings of the prairie homo ergaster reveal complaints of late-November cold weather playoff games. It’s a debate that will undoubtedly wage on until the end of time, the sun engulfing the earth in a fiery explosion after billions of years of fruitless debate.

Or we could just settle this right now.

Yes, the debate over the CFL schedule pops up every now and again, most often during the playoffs when two teams are forced to clash in subzero temperatures. It’s depressing to me that this debate only garners national attention when the weather turns (after all, the Stampeders punched a home playoff ticket in what, week twelve of this past season? Did people really think Calgary wasn’t going to be cold in mid-November? Like, how did people not see that coming months ahead of time? Winter happens every year!), but that’s beside the point. The reason for this post is to lay out the facts about the CFL schedule debate and draw some hard and fast conclusions about the way in which the CFL should go about scheduling its season. Here we go.

A large number of people in the debate look to a simple solution to avoid cold weather football altogether. “Kick off the season on May 1 and we’ll never have to worry about winter-weather football again!” they declare, believing their words to be of some profound wisdom. And, on many levels, their suggestion makes sense. It would be nice if the CFL regular season could fire up by May 1. There’d be some chilly April preseason games on the prairies, sure, but avoiding the bitter, icy winds of November would still make for a great tradeoff. There’s only one problem: it would ruin the integrity of the CFL draft.

The CFL must schedule its draft after the NFL draft has already taken place. It simply has to be done this way. Why? Because the top players available in the CFL draft will always garner at least lukewarm interest from NFL teams. Imagine how’d you feel if your favorite CFL team used its first round pick on a top prospect, only for the same player to be drafted weeks later by an NFL team intent on developing him over a number of years? Occurrences like this would limit fan interest in the CFL draft, make it impossible for CFL brain trusts to compile draft boards, and ultimately destroy the integrity of the draft altogether. It’s simply not an option.

So, with this limitation in mind, when can the CFL schedule kick-off every year?

Well, the NFL draft is almost always scheduled for the last week of April (this year’s draft ran from April 30 to May 2). The only exception in recent memory was the 2014 draft that ran from May 8-10, a scheduling delay the NFL (forgivingly) did away with this season. Considering CFL general managers require at least a week following the NFL draft for the dust to settle (many NFL teams spend eight to ten days following the draft signing undrafted free agents), it’s fair to presume that, provided the NFL doesn’t shift its draft dates in the coming years, the CFL draft can be conducted by May 9 at the very latest every season.

The thing is, even with this tightening of an already tight draft schedule, this change would only save the CFL a small handful of days. The 2015 CFL draft is slated for May 12, meaning a bump up to May 9 would only save the league three days.

The only way the CFL could save even a moderate amount of time at the beginning of the season schedule would be to tighten the amount of time between the draft and the start of training camp. As it stands, the CFL will open rookie camps on May 27, just over two weeks after the completion of the draft. This time period is set aside to allow teams to sign drafted players to contracts, book player travel, and make final pre-camp logistical arrangements.

In the interest of starting the seasons sooner, I have a proposition to shorten this timeframe.

The NFL instituted a rookie pay scale as part of their 2011 collective bargaining agreement. This was done primarily to avoid the unbelievable amounts of money rookies were commanding before ever setting foot on an NFL field. While rookies commanding huge salaries is hardly an issue in the CFL – even the first overall selection is lucky to sign for more than $85,000 annually – I’d like to see this practice adopted by the CFL in the interest of saving time.

Just imagine how quickly general managers across the league could sign their draftees if every player had a specific financial figure attached to the spot at which he was selected. Provided the CFL Players’ Association was given the power to negotiate the pay scale with the CFL, players would be able to sign with teams virtually immediately after being drafted.

Let’s look at the NFL pay scale for reference. The first overall selection of the 2014 NFL draft, Jadeveon Clowney, signed a four-year contract worth $22.27 million dollars. By the tenth overall selection, the dollar figure dropped to $12.25 million. By twentieth, $8.38 million; by thirtieth, $7.11 million; and by the end of the second round the dollar figure had dropped to $3.21 million, already less than a million dollars above the minimum rookie four-year deal (2.22 million).

With this in mind, why not start the CFL rookie pay scale at $92,000 annually for the first overall selection? The salaries could then decrease steeply until hitting $68,000 after the first two rounds. From there, players drafted in rounds three through five would see salaries decrease at a slower rate from $68,000 to $50,000. Finally, players drafted in rounds six and seven would earn the CFL’s minimum salary of $50,000.

This is just a rough proposal – the issue of signing bonuses (ie. guaranteed money) going into these rookie contracts would also play an important factor – but coming up with a fair, equitable pay scale would be the responsibility of the CFL and CFLPA. There would also be the issue of applying the pay scale to players like Vaughn Martin, Laurent Duvernay-Tardif, and Philip Blake who saw their CFL draft stock plummet after being selected in the mid-rounds of the NFL draft. Highly-touted prospects shouldn’t be forced to sign financially unsuitable CFL contracts (should they choose to come north, of course) due to their value diminishing after being drafted by an NFL team. To avoid such an occurrence, I’d propose limiting the effect of the pay scale to within a year of each player’s draft date. This means a player drafted on May 7, 2016 would no longer be tied to the salary of his original draft position as of May 7, 2017, free to negotiate with the team to whom his rights belonged as a true free agent.

Having drafted players sign predetermined contracts would allow the period of time between the draft and rookie camp to be greatly shortened. With player travel being the only major obstacle following the draft, teams could open rookie camps just five to seven days after the completion of the draft. Using our May 9 date from earlier, this means the remaining CFL dates could look as follows: rookie camp, May 14; training camp, May 17; preseason, May 25; regular season, June 12.

Starting the regular season by June 12 would be the best-case scenario for the CFL. Almost two weeks earlier than this season’s kick-off date (June 25), this new start date would allow for the playoffs to begin by the first Saturday of November (yes, I wrote ‘Saturday’ – it’s time for the CFL playoffs to stop competing with the NFL on Sundays) and a Grey Cup scheduled in mid-November. Under these conditions the 2015 Grey Cup could have been played on November 14 rather than November 29. And while Manitoba weather is hardly predictable, there’s a very good chance the 14th of November will end up being a lot balmier than the 29th.

The introduction of a rookie pay scale would allow the CFL to maximize the effectiveness of its scheduling. The plan I have outlined would maintain the integrity of the CFL draft, still allow for rookie players to earn fair and equitable contracts, and move the season up by two full weeks. As an added bonus, the CFL would still avoid competing with the Stanley Cup Finals most years, with the average end date of the last ten Stanley Cup Finals being June 11.

My proposal would put an added strain on CFL managerial staff to finish their pre-season preparations, but perhaps a) disclosure of a shortened timeframe given well in advance, and b) the promise of the CFL season concluding a full two weeks earlier would be enough to get front office staff on board. Teams could also choose to schedule off-season workouts, open tryouts, and mini-camps earlier in the calendar year to help alleviate the added pressure an earlier season would undoubtedly create. This would likely appeal to CFL teams if for no other reason than travel traditionally being less expensive in February and March than it is in April.

With these conditions in mind, it seems all parties would ultimately benefit from adjusting the CFL schedule as described above. Teams would save money on off-season travel expenses and generate extra revenue from more fans buying tickets to warm weather games late in the season. TSN would see its viewership increase with decreased competition with the NFL (Saturday playoff games would help, while moving the season up two weeks would mean two fewer weeks of regular season competition with the NFL), while still avoiding direct competition with the Stanley Cup playoffs in June (with the exception of one or two preseason games, potentially). Lastly, fans and players would enjoy the benefits of fewer cold weather games late in the season. As someone who’s already purchased his 2015 Grey Cup ticket, I know I’ll be remembering this blog post if November 29th turns out to be 30-below.

So there it is. After years of hearing the CFL schedule debate wage on, this post represents the conclusions I’ve reached about the best way in which the CFL can go about scheduling its season. What are your thoughts?

John Hodge, Blue Bomber Talk

Twitter: @BlueBomberTalk

Email: [email protected]

John Hodge is a Canadian football reporter based in Winnipeg.